Prize-winning poet Ocean Vuong explores America's wounded psycheby Rebecca Liu / July 16, 2019 / Leave a comment
Prize-winning poet Ocean Vuong’s debut novel is a scintillating letter to a mother unlikely to ever read it. The reason is partly practical: she is illiterate. It is also because her son has grown beyond her recognition.
Little Dog—who owes his name to a Vietnamese belief that animal nicknames can ward off hungry spirits—is born in 1988 in a banana leaf-thatched hut just outside Saigon. Twenty-eight years later, he is a successful writer fresh from studying literature in New York. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, which mirrors Vuong’s twisting life journey, tells us how he got from one place to another. Little Dog moves to Connecticut with his family when he is two years old. As a child, he observes his mother working at a nail salon, where she is one of many Vietnamese immigrants who initially see the job as a stopgap and later as a necessity. As an adolescent, he has a secret tryst with a young man named Trevor who introduces him to cocaine, sex and, tangentially, the opioid crisis.
A person’s story, the novel suggests, is inextricable from the lives of those around him. Little Dog’s birth is threaded alongside tales of his grandmother’s romance with an American soldier during the war. Later in the novel, his story fades into the background as we hear more about Trevor’s understated kindness and his mother’s attempts to escape her war-torn past. Some readers may find Vuong’s unflagging ability to find beauty in everything a little unsettling: blood-stained conflicts, accounts of child abuse and a lover’s iris all become the stuff of lyrical poetry.
Vuong’s gambit is to make the reader reckon not only with difficult subjects, but also pay generous, open attention to the world. His book examines the cycles of violence that pass down through generations, the dreams deferred by people who cannot afford them, and how joy can be achieved by not seeking it at all. This consummately American novel both documents the nation’s wounded psyche while giving its protagonist a path to healing.
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous
by Ocean Vuong (Jonathan Cape, £12.99)